Alan Noble offers an insightful look at “The Evangelical Persecution Complex.”
Noble is writing about the white evangelical subculture in The Atlantic, which means he’s describing us for outsiders — the secular, pluralistic, educated middle-brow readership of that publication/website. But I think he’s also very much writing for the subculture itself, making a case for his fellow white evangelicals that he summarizes in his first paragraph:
In the Bible, Christians are promised by Saint Paul that they will suffer for Christ, if they love Him (2 Timothy 3:12). But especially in contemporary America, it is not clear what shape that suffering will take. Narratives of political, cultural, and theological oppression are popular in evangelical communities, but these are sometimes fiction or deeply exaggerated non-fiction — and only rarely accurate. This is problematic: If evangelicals want to have a persuasive voice in a pluralist society, a voice that can defend Christians from serious persecution, then we must be able to discern accurately when we are truly victims of oppression — and when this victimization is only imagined.
That’s gently stated but, still, Noble has just ever-so-politely accused American evangelicals of imaginary victimization. Here is a tricky project. How can you make your critique heard when the substance of that critique is that the group you’re addressing has a disproportionate sense of victimization? If that critique is valid and accurate then the very act of articulating it is likely to reinforce the very thing it’s meant to challenge.
Simply by stating that American evangelicals’ persecution mythology is “fiction or deeply exaggerated non-fiction — and only rarely accurate” Noble provides those same evangelicals with more fodder for mythmaking. His article may just be added to the pile of “evidence” confirming their status as a persecuted people suffering for Christ.
So Noble, wisely, adds a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down:
There are some understandable reasons for this exaggerated sense of persecution. Globally, Christians face incredible discrimination. In North Korea and many Muslim-governed countries, Christians risk imprisonment and death for their faith. The Christian community in Mosul, Iraq, was exiled, and many Christians are still persecuted by the ISIS, a jihadist group. Christians with a global perspective on their faith rightly identify themselves as part of a persecuted people in the 21st century.
That last sentence is an overstatement — which is my understated way of saying it’s malarkey.* But this unfounded flattery isn’t Noble’s main point, it’s just his way of trying to soften up white evangelicals enough that they might be able to hear his main point.
Noble’s main point is this:
The problem is that for most of U.S. history, Christians haven’t been persecuted — at least not in comparison to early believers or even what Christians in places like Iraq face today. So, the question for American Christians is what to make of the Bible’s warning that we will be persecuted. For many evangelicals, the lack of very public and dramatic persecution could be interpreted as a sign that they just aren’t faithful enough: If they were persecuted, they could be confident they are saved. This creates an incentive to interpret personal experiences and news events as signs of oppression, which are ostensibly validations of our commitment to Christ. The danger of this view is that believers can come to see victimhood as an essential part of their identity.
So much of the pathological behavior of the white evangelical subculture can be traced back to this one thing: Salvation anxiety. Evangelical conversionism and soteriology means that we’re all still sitting on Finney’s “anxious bench” — precariously perched betwixt Heaven and Hell. If the various Calvinish strains of evangelicalism are right, then we have no way of being sure we’re among the elect. If the less Calvinish strains of our tribe are right, then we have no way of being sure that our sincerity is sincere enough.
So we desperately need some kind of sign or confirmation or some way of keeping score. Sometimes we look to material blessings to provide such evidence. Sometimes we look to examples of “persecution.” Sometimes we try to do both at the same time.
Or we try to confirm our own status as the righteous remnant by perceiving/portraying the rest of the world in starkly evil terms. Rather than making our light shine brighter, we seek to confirm that we are the children of light by exaggerating or inventing ever more extreme and exotic monstrosities to confirm that others are the children of darkness — Satanic baby killers!
None of those strategies works. None of them assuages the desperate fear borne of salvation anxiety.Nor does any of them satisfy the other, more general form of anxiety plaguing white evangelicals in America — the more general sense of drifting purposeless. You know, that thing Thoreau called “quiet desperation,” and Masters called “the torture of restlessness and vague desire.” David Foster Wallace described it as “the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”
And Walker Percy, again, described it as living in the sphere of the possible, waiting for some ineffable something to happen:
What happens to a man to whom all things seem possible and every course of action open? Nothing of course. Except war. If a man lives in the sphere of the possible and waits for something to happen, what he is waiting for is war — or the end of the world. … In war the possible becomes actual through no doing of one’s own.
What is it we’re waiting for? War. Or, at least, culture war.
“War is a force that gives us meaning,” Chris Hedges said. And once that becomes true, then war becomes something we can’t get by without. That’s why it makes sense for Alan Noble to say “The problem is that for most of U.S. history, Christians haven’t been persecuted.”
Just let that sink in: “The problem is that for most of U.S. history, Christians haven’t been persecuted.” How did the absence of persecution come to be seen as a “problem”? Do we really suppose that Christians in Mosul witnessed their city’s conquest by theocratic thugs and sighed with relief? Do we really imagine that they said, “At long last — persecution has arrived and now our problem is solved”?
This waiting for war to provide meaning, I think, is what drives so much of the culture-war passion in America. It’s the desire — the need — to have something larger than ourselves will force the possible to become actual. This is why Todd Starnes’ flagrant fabrications and all the rest of the religious-right’s persecution complex is so appealing. It’s a fantasy in which we get to feel like heroes bravely facing the dangers of war, all without ever having to actually face real danger. It allows us to feel alive without also having to fear getting killed.
This persecution fantasy flatters us in much the same way as those Hitchcock thrillers tempt us to flatter ourselves. Ah, yes, we may seem like merely ordinary people — indistinct from anyone else — but these fantasies reassure us that we’re special. Some day, you’ll see, we will be flung into an unexpected adventure and emerge triumphant against the odds.
“You’re good. … You’re very good,” the villain will say to us, reluctantly impressed by our surprising courage and heroism. And then later, after our triumph is complete, he will look at us, bewildered by how such ordinary-seeming people were able to foil all his carefully laid evil plans. “But how …?”
“Next time,” we will tell him. “Just say Merry Christmas.”
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* Yes, right now in many places in the world, Christians are suffering real, tangible persecution for their faith. But that doesn’t mean that American Christians are therefore, in any meaningful way, “part of” that suffering or “part of a persecuted people.”
Nor is there anything uniquely or distinctively Christian about that persecution. Yes, Christians in North Korea and in Mosul face incredible discrimination — but so does everybody else in North Korea and in Mosul. If we’re going to cite such examples as evidence that “Christians with a global perspective … rightly identify themselves as part of a persecuted people,” then we must conclude the same thing about atheists with a global perspective, Shiites with a global perspective, Sunnis with a global perspective, and Hindus, Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners, Pagans, animists, Scientologists, etc., “with a global perspective on their faith.”
The logic of this claim — some Christians are persecuted, therefore all Christians are “part of a persecuted people” — leads to all sorts of illogical conclusions. It would allow the Puritan divines of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to declare themselves “part of a persecuted people” based on the clear evidence that their fellow Christian, Mary Dyer, was hanged for her faith. Or, closer to my lifetime, it would allow the white clergy of Birmingham to claim that they were “part of a persecuted people” because, after all, their fellow Baptist preacher had just gotten thrown into Birmingham jail.